The Importance of Art in Video Games

Nintendo & HAL Laboratory’s Kirby character

Today I would like to go over the importance of art, and all of its concepts, when it comes to video games. When I say “art”, for this article, I will mainly be talking about visual art (paintings, digital art, photography, etc.). With that being said, audio and music are very important when it comes to a video game as well, it’s just I won't be covering that aspect today.

Intro

Before diving into this article, I find it is only appropriate for me to start by saying that I am not a person highly versed in the history of art, nor am I a person who has been doing art for years. Even so, I LOVE art, and the huge role that art plays in games is undeniable. Making my dream game is the whole reason I got into doing art myself back at the start of 2020, and it’s been a great addition to my life since! I won’t be diving into myself with this article though.

The General Art Influence on Games

As I mentioned in the previous section, the role art has in games is huge. Whether talking about concept art, cover art, animations, compositions, user interfaces, and even shaders, art has at least some role to play in each of these.

Concept art by Trent Kaniuga

In this article, I will touch a bit more on the topics of shape language, composition, and animation to explain a how these concepts are used in games.

Shape Language

Generally speaking, when an artist is coming up with a character, environment, or whatever the subject matter happens to be, there are three main shapes they will think of. These shapes are the circle (this includes curved lines as well), the square, and the triangle.

Art by Kate Pozdnyakova

Artists use these simple shapes to help come up with their designs due to the implicit feelings each imposes on us as people. Generally speaking, the square shape gives us a sense of stability, maturity, defense, security, and so on. The circle shape generally tends to convey innocence, friendliness, curiosity, and other emotions along those lines. The triangle shape is often associated with danger, edginess, unpredictability, and other similar emotions. When incorporated well, an artist can generate feelings into their viewer without the viewer even knowing why a piece makes them feel as they do. For example, look at this artists interpretation of Kirby with different shape languages:

Art by Twitter user: Pikat

The square and triangle designs give an entirely different feeling from the beloved Kirby that many of us have come to know and love. The concept of shape language also extends to environment design as well!

Art by Shahzeb Khan Raza
Art by Akshay Katnaur
Art by: Raquel Cornejo

Each of these pieces immediately provides the viewer with different feelings. All for a variety of reasons, but a big one being the shape language each artist incorporates throughout the entirety of the artwork.

When it comes to shape language, these are not hard and fast rules. These concepts are just meant to be used as general rules when coming up with designs. For example, let’s look at the old animated show, Yu-Gi-Oh! (kind of showing my age here now):

Artwork for one of the Yu-Gi-Oh! games

If one were to watch this show — and pretty much any of the others in the series from what I can tell — then you will literally see triangles everywhere. Both heroes and villains get the same treatment when it comes to their shape language, so how is it that we tell who is who based on a single image? Well, one of the biggest indicators is the shape in the eyes. If you were to look at Yugi’s face (left), you will see that his eyes are much larger and rounder than Seto Kaiba’s (right) eyes— one of the main antagonists of the original series. This subtle difference in the character designs gives the viewer a slight indication from the start where these characters align and the general role they will play in the overall story.

Composition

Composition is a very broad concept in art, and I suggest checking out this blog post for a better idea of what composition means in photography and this blog post for better ideas of what composition means in terms of painting if you are interested. Generally speaking though, composition deals with the way a scene is constructed through the arrangement of elements in the scene. Some of the composition techniques/principles are:

  • Contrast
From BANDAI NAMCO’s and Tarsier Studio’s Little Nightmares series
  • Emphasis
Sony’s God of War 4

These are just two examples of how video games utilize the same composition principles that artists and photographers use in their work. These composition techniques really help a player to know what is important, helps players find their next task, and more.

Animation

When it comes to making an animation, there are generally two ways they are done. Traditionally speaking, animations were done by drawing a figure over all of the frames needed to complete the animation. When each image is played frame by frame over one another, one gets results as shown below:

Animation by Kid Mindfreak

With the introduction of 3D models though, animations can now be done slightly differently. At base, animations are still run frame by frame, but the difference is that with a 3D model, we do not need to re-draw the same figure for each frame. Instead, we can use the same model and simply offset/displace vertices and joints to create our animation.

An Atlas from Hello World’s No Man’s Sky showing vertex displacement animation
Animation from Webneel

These days, there are plenty of games made with 2D assets, as well as 3D. Much of what influences the decision a developer and/or studio use often depends on the resources available, as well as the general style a game is going for.

Conclusion

Thanks for checking in and reading today’s article. I truly find art has a very important role when it comes to video games, and I have a deep appreciation for it. Tomorrow I will start going over the art I have been creating for the 2D game I have been working on. As always, comments and critiques are welcome. If I have made any mistakes, please let me know so I can correct them for future readers.

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